Florence Nightingale: Frequently Asked Questions

Who was Florence Nightingale?
When was she born?
Why was she called "The Lady with the Lamp"?
What happened to her after the Crimean War?
What is the "Nightingale Pledge"?
Did she keep an owl in her pocket?
Was she bossy?
Did God call her?
Did she pretend to be ill to make people work harder for her?
Did she invent nursing?
Did she have ME, Fibromyalgia, or Brucellosis?
Did she die happy?
Was she a virgin?
Was she a lesbian?
Did she try to help women to get the vote?
Did Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole know each other?

Where is Florence Nightingale buried?
Did she die of syphilis?

Did she only help to emancipate middle class women or did she help the lower class?
Did she work for the health of people of other nationalities and religions than her own?
Why didn't her parents want her to work in hospitals?
What medals did she receive?

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Who was Florence Nightingale?
She is  famous as the leader of the nurses who took care of British soldiers in hospital during the Crimean War, 1854-56.  She was born in 1820 and died in 1910.

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When was she born?
May 12, 1820 in Florence, Italy (her parents named her after the city).  In case you are an astrologer, I don't know the exact time but I am sure it's on file and I'll keep looking.

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Why was she called "The Lady with the Lamp"?
In 1857 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem about her ("Santa Filomena") which described how she watched over the patients in the army hospital at night, alone and carrying a lamp. "In that hour of misery, a Lady with a lamp I see ..."

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What happened to her after the Crimean War?
She was 36 when she came home. From then on she worked as a leader of the movement to reduce sickness and poverty in Britain. She became a public health adviser to governments all over the world. She never married, lived on her own, and was physically disabled.

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What is the "Nightingale Pledge"?
"
I solemnly pledge myself before God and presence of this assembly;
To pass my life in purity and to practice my profession faithfully.
I will abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous
   and will not take or knowingly administer any harmful drug.
I will do all in my power to maintain and elevate the standard of my profession
   and will hold in confidence all personal matters committed to my keeping
   and family affairs coming to my knowledge in the practice of my calling.
With loyalty will I endeavor to aid the physician in his work,
   and devote myself to the welfare of those committed to my care."

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Did she keep an owl in her pocket?
Yes, just before she went to the Crimean War she had a pet baby owl called Athena who travelled in her pocket.

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Was she bossy?
Yes, but only during the war. She ruled her nurses with iron discipline - even locking them up at night! She was doing it to prove to middle-class parents back home that tough discipline and strong female leadership could protect their daughters against sexual harassment. The fear of this was causing British mothers to stop their daughters becoming nurses, and made British hospitals inferior to Continental ones where nuns did the nursing under the protection of a mother superior. Nowadays, we have other ways of protecting women and her methods are not needed.  But in British hospitals in 1854 her "bossiness" was justified.

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Did God call her?
Yes, but she did not hear voices or see visions. God called her by making her think for herself. She did not think that she ought to do what her family and all of society expected her to do - to either get married or look after her married relatives. She wanted to have a career, and this was so unusual for a woman that she believed that God had called her to it.

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Did she pretend to be ill to make people work harder for her?
No. She really was ill after the war.  She spent more than ten years in bed from 1857 onwards.  After that, she did sometimes exaggerate her illness as an excuse for not meeting the people who wanted to meet her because she was so famous.  People worked very hard for her partly because they felt sorry for her but also because they believed passionately in her plan to improve the lives of ordinary people.  .

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Did she invent nursing?
No. There were already female nurses in British hospitals. What she did was to make it safe for single women to be employed as nurses.  This opened up a new career opportunity for middle-class women, and  improved the quality and quantity of female nurses.

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Did she have ME, Fibromyalgia, or Brucellosis?
Nobody knows. Like many disabled people (but unlike typical sufferers from those diseases) she was a very productive worker, even when she was too ill to leave her bed. She must have suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), because of her terrible experiences of the war. This would have contributed to her disability.

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Did she die happy?
Yes, because she thought that the sufferings of the soldiers in the Crimean War had led to improvements in Britain that she had helped to bring about.

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Was she a virgin?
Yes, almost certainly. A young man spent nine years before the war proposing marriage to her but she rejected him to do God’s work instead.

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Was she a lesbian?
No,  probably not a practising one. She seems to have had passionate friendships with women in her adolescence and again late in life. But for most of her life she was happier in the company of men.

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Did she try to help women to get the vote?
No, she said she was too busy with other work to spend time campaigning for female suffrage. Women were not allowed to vote in Britain in her lifetime. She did join the General Committee of the Society for Woman’s Suffrage, which tried to get the vote for women, but she was not an active campaigner.

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Did Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole know each other?
Yes, Mrs. Seacole called at Florence Nightingale’s hospital near Constantinople on her way to the Crimea. She met Miss Nightingale but did not ask her for a job. Earlier in London the nursing recruiters rejected Mrs. Seacole, apparently because of her colour, but Nightingale had already left for the war at that time and was not involved. After the war Nightingale wrote a reference for Mrs. Seacole who was looking for work.

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Where is Florence Nightingale buried?
In the churchyard of East Wellow church, near Romsey in Hampshire, England.

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Did Florence Nightingale die of syphilis?
No, she died of extreme old age at 90. There is no possibility at all that she had syphilis. Her life is extremely well-documented and the symptoms of syphilis are not compatible with what we know about her. But this rumour about syphilis is quite common. I have been told that it was publicised by a priest who was opposing a church proposal to commemmorate her. He said she was an atheist who died of syphilis, and this was widely published in the press and resulted in the proposal being dropped. 

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Did she only help to emancipate middle class women, or did she also help the lower classes?
She contributed to women’s emancipation in three ways. First, she made it easier for women to become nurses.  She aimed primarily at middle-class women but did take in some working class women as well. Second, she showed women how to be efficient protectors of their families’ health (through her Notes on Nursing and other self-help booklets and programs). This "home nursing" advice was aimed at any woman who could read. Notes on Nursing is written in very simple language obviously intended for readers with only basic literacy. It was aimed at "everywoman" (according to the preface to the book) and was very influential. The book was a best seller and changed ordinary working-class women into the guardians of their families' health. This was part of Nightingale’s successful strategy to reduce the very high mortality from preventible disease. A third contribution she made to women's emancipation was that she helped to abolish regulations on prostitution that were unfair to women.  Obviously this affected  lower class women.

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Did she work for the health of people of other nationalities and religions than her own?
She worked in hospitals for poor people in Germany and France.  Also, throughout her life Florence Nightingale actively fought against the religious prejudice that existed in England. When she started her first job in England, as Superintendent of a hospital in Harley Street, she had an argument with the hospital’s Committee because they did not accept Roman Catholic patients. She said she would resign unless the Committee changed the rules and gave her written permission to accept not only Roman Catholics but also Jews and any other religion "and allow them to be visited by their respective priests, Rabbis, and Muftis (Islamic clerics)". The Committee changed the rules as she demanded.  Later in her life, Florence Nightingale actively worked for public health improvements in many different countries. She devoted many years of her life to developing practical schemes for village sanitation in India (which included Pakistan at that time), designed to improve the life of poor people of all religions.

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Why didn't her parents want her to work in hospitals?
Her parents believed that only immoral women - prostitutes and drunks - worked in hospitals.  There was nobody to protect these women from the male patients, doctors, and (worst of all) medical students and it was thought that women had to be depraved to work in such an environment.  Also, prostitutes seemed to be suitable for hospital work because they could not be further corrupted by the sight of naked flesh.  No middle-class women in Britain wanted their daughter to work in a hospital and be exposed to such risks.  It was different  in Roman Catholic countries on the Continent, because there were nuns who were protected by their Order.  Some of these nuns were from upper-class families.

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What medals did she receive?
All except the first are on display in the National Army Museum, Chelsea, London together with a jewelled broach awarded to her by Queen Victoria during the Crimean War:
Order of the Cross of Merit (Germany)
Order of Merit (1907)
Badge of a Lady of Grace of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem (1904)
Royal Red Cross First Class (1883)
Geneva Cross (France, 1870-71)
Gold Medal of the Société Française de Secours aux Blessées des Armées de Terre et de Mer (France, 1867)
Badge of Honour, Norwegian Red Cross Society (1910)

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